Politically Radical, Liturgically Traditional: A review of “God, The God of Unmet Desire”

Several years of pandemic have eroded in-person, congregational prayer in the United States; synagogue attendance remains stubbornly down, and despite a boom in online services, overall, membership is declining. On the other hand, covid-induced isolation and hibernation encourage prayer practices that are individual and private. Personally, although I have been davening daily for about a decade, that shifted from a supplementary routine to the center of my spiritual life in March 2020. I prayed ornate, festival prayers alone for the first time; newly aware of sickness around me, I found previously formulaic petitions for health suddenly both poignant and ominous; and increasingly addicted to devices, I was suddenly fighting a war for focused attention, in which prayer seemed at once a spiritual weapon and the prime battleground.

I was thus delighted to read “God, The God of Unmet Desire,” a short book by Zisl, in which the pseudonymous author meditates on his daily, individual Jewish prayer during the first, brutal winter of the pandemic. Through memoir, a pastiche of intertexts from the rabbis and contemporary progressive writers, and an interpretive tour of the skeleton of the morning prayers, Zisl offers an account of how liturgically traditional daily davening can be “powerful, liberatory, and queer.”

Zisl largel uses the term “davening” for prayer, reflecting diasporist commitment to his Yiddish, Ashkenazic heritage; this anti-Zionism also lies behind his decision to adopt a pseudonym. Notably, his anti-Zionism contrasts with what I take to me the major spiritual current on the American Jewish left, a “doykeit” (roughly, hereness) that declines interest in far-off Jerusalem for the immediate. (I once heard a prayer-leader, in particularly sharp, jarring example of that move, put words from Isaiah about God gathering people to the Temple in Jerusalm to the tune of Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is My Land.) Zisl’s politics are perhaps more exilic than diasporic; he retains a traditional longing for Jerusalem, indeed faults Zionism for offering a too-easy “ending,” claiming that “we are already redeemed.”

One argument for the radicalism of the tradition, then, is that it traffics in unmet desires—in the painful gap between the real world and our yearnings. Zisl notably observes how “wealthier synagogues” preach in a “individualist, moralizing mode, suggesting we ought to fine=tune some particular character trait,” and suggesting instead we “beg… and fight,” that is, we focus on the fact of our “precarity, shared struggle, and yearning.” For those who have read Allen Lipson’s recent Jewish Currents piece tracing the Conservative movement’s twinned impulses to discipline prayer and domesticate immigrant politics—in essence, to make shul deliberately dull—Zisl is offering a passionate, appealing alternative.

Zisl understands this passion as basically queer, for several reasons. First, as a cis man, he finds ritually subordinating himself to God in essence functions as training in unlearning masculinity’s aspirations to power, self-possession, and dominance. (As he admits, mileage will vary here for people with other subject positions; his book must solicit parallels written from other perspectives.) But second, he understands human eros as expressing “our fundamental desire to reunite with another expression of divinity,” and conversely, believes davening exists in part to bring us “back to primal desire.” (In one of my favorite of numerous, miniature twists, he reports a playful reading of a line from ashrei, “God satisfies every living thing with desire,” suggesting that God is not granting our desires here, but granting us desire itself.) Finally, Zisl’s davning is queer because it is contextualized by queer texts and interlocutors: Judith Butler, adrienne maree brown, and so on.

In this brief review, I am painfully aware of not doing justice to this book’s light, gentle tone: it is full of jokes and vignettes, written clearly and readably, and consistently sweet (what “Zisl” means), humble and good-humored. Those qualities make this book easy to recommend to someone looking to develop their own daily prayer practice. The book’s refusal to accept a cultural dichotomy between traditional texts and radical politics seems to me salutary; I hope it finds a wide audience.

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